I had no idea what to expect when my plane touched down in the spectacular lunar-like landscape of Calama airport, in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert. All I knew was that the land was among the driest on earth and the eco adventures were plentiful. But where to start? Answer: at the sustainably chic Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, where full board (from $600 per person per night) includes myriad high-adrenaline and eye-opening day trips.
Set just outside the village of San Pedro, in the terracotta-coloured Catarpe Valley, Alto Atacama is a low-slung lodge (first picture) that slots into the scenery rather than competing against it - a blissful bolthole where an authentic Chilean atmosphere meets cosseting luxury. The grounds, with views of the Cordillera de la Sal range, down to the Laguna Cejar, are home to an orchard, six discreetly positioned swimming pools (second picture), a llama and alpaca pen, and an observatory with views of the starriest skies I’ve seen in my life – thanks to the high altitude (San Pedro is at 8,000ft and excursions can take you to sites at more than 13,000ft) and the absence of rainfall and pollution – so clear that the in-house astronomer could point out the Southern Cross and Magellanic Clouds.
While the hotel’s low-key spa (the quinoa facial is perhaps the most intriguing choice on the menu) and digital detox atmosphere (wifi is limited) make lying low a treat, the expert-led excursions are not to be missed. Trips to geysers, volcanic hikes and horseback rides over dramatic sand dunes thrust me out of my comfort zone with a poetic sense of adventure. The crowning glory was a challenging hike up Moon Valley – all steep cliffs illuminated by a crackling lightning storm and then a double rainbow.
Repairing back to the hotel for evening meals saw indigenous ingredients and dishes take centre stage. Purple socaire potatoes, pataska corn and local hydroponic greens and sprouts all featured prominently, as did the Rica-Rica Pisco Sours that I couldn’t seem to turn down – despite their enhanced, high-altitude effects. I leapt upon every opportunity to try something new – particularly moreish were the goat entrecotes, native corvina fish and the singular Algarobbo nut éclair stuffed with cherrimoya cream.
Sadly I missed seeing the expansive swamps full of glorious pink flamingos and didn’t have time to take a swim in the salty waters of Laguna Cejar, but what I did experience will stay with me forever.